GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Feb. 21, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst met with reporters in a conference room at Lambeau Field and said he might select a quarterback in the first round of the upcoming draft, even with Aaron Rodgers on the roster.
Two months later, he did just that.
What’s changed in the 284 days between Gutekunst’s shocking decision to trade up in the first round to grab Jordan Love and Monday’s no-gray-area proclamation that Rodgers is his quarterback for “years to come.”
First and foremost, it’s been Rodgers’ play. After an absolutely dominant second half of the 2016 season, Rodgers finished seventh in completion percentage and eighth in passer rating in 2017, 26th in completion percentage and 13th in passer rating in 2018 and 21st in completion percentage and 12th in passer rating in 2019.
Second, it’s Rodgers health. In 2017, he suffered his second broken collarbone in five years. In 2018, he played through a knee injury sustained in the opener.
Against that backdrop and given the vital importance of the position, Gutekunst felt compelled to draft Rodgers’ successor. Not only had the two-time MVP’s performance slid, he had dealt with three significant injuries. Father Time is undefeated and perhaps was about to sack Rodgers.
Instead, Rodgers in 2020 returned to his lofty perch as one of the best players in the NFL. He’s likely to win his third MVP after leading the NFL in completion percentage, touchdown percentage and interception percentage while finishing with the second-best passer rating in NFL history. He wasn’t even on the injury report in 2020.
Rodgers no longer is a declining superstar. He is a superstar and the obvious best bet of getting the Packers back to their elusive first Super Bowl since 2010.
In saying that, Gutekunst discarded the presumption that Love will be the successor to Rodgers. Rather, draft position notwithstanding, Love is no different than Aaron Brooks (a third-round pick when Brett Favre was the quarterback) or DeShone Kizer (acquired for Damarious Randall in 2018). A quality backup quarterback is like a fire extinguisher. With a good one, like Matt Flynn in 2013, the flames can be extinguished. Without a good one, as was the case in 2017 with Brett Hundley, the season will be consumed in an inferno.
In that light, perhaps Gutekunst is moving the goalposts after Rodgers shifted the timeline with his MVP season. The natural time to make the change would have been before the 2022 season. That’s when there would have been significant salary-cap savings in dealing Rodgers and also when Love would have needed to start so Gutekunst could make an informed decision on triggering the pricy fifth-year option on Love’s rookie deal.
With Rodgers back on his game and the team needing the cap space that reworking Rodgers’ deal can help create, Gutekunst decided to re-hitch the wagon to No. 12. That leaves Love in limbo with no path to playing time barring an injury to Rodgers or a sudden downturn in performance.
“I view Jordan as a very talented prospect that we’re really excited about developing,” Gutekunst said. “I know that maybe that’s not the norm to have quarterbacks sit for a long time but we certainly believe in that. We’re going to use resources to acquire and develop quarterbacks just because it’s what we believe in. I’m really excited about the limited development that Jordan has been able to do in the short period of time that we’ve had him. We’re excited to continue down that road and get him in some preseason games at the same time we’re competing for championships with Aaron.”
For a franchise that seemingly has been stuck in the limbo of playing to win a championship today but also remaining a contender into the future, that last sentence was perhaps the most important. There was no gray area. No reading between the lines. Rodgers is the quarterback – a message that was probably meant as much for No. 12 as fans and reporters. Now comes the challenge of doing more than competing for a championship with no contributions from a first-round pick.